Killing Thee Softly

Teaching Mrs. Tingle
area theaters

Even if Columbine had never entered the media lexicon of national crises, Kevin Williamson's directorial debut shouldn't have been released under its working title, Killing Mrs. Tingle. A comedy about a nasty teacher who gets what's coming, Williamson's movie might have rubbed our collective nose in the sublimated fear of today's teenagers--those hooligans who wear baggy clothes in our designated shopping areas, laughing ominously. As Williamson prefers hackneyed psychodrama to satire, however, the more constructively named Teaching Mrs. Tingle skirts such troublesome issues. So too the film seems determined to disappoint the target audience of Katie Holmes crushees, who haven't yet learned that marquee-caliber starlets rarely appear topless--no matter what the trailer appears to suggest.

We don't need no education: Katie Holmes and Helen Mirren in Teaching Mrs. Tingle
We don't need no education: Katie Holmes and Helen Mirren in Teaching Mrs. Tingle

Exchanging jean cut-offs for an equally pedophile-pleasing plaid skirt, professional teen (and Williamson bedmate) Holmes plays Leigh Ann Watson--hard-working honor student, phallophobic virgin, and the embodiment of clean-scrubbed diligence. The daughter of a divorced waitress, Leigh Ann is poised for the scholarship that can get her into college and out of her dead-end town, but only if she can squeak out a decent grade from the venomous, much-loathed Mrs. Tingle. Enter bad boy Luke Churner (Barry Watson), who appears with a copy of Tingle's final and encourages Leigh Ann to cheat. Leigh Ann, of course, blanches and demurs. But thanks to a bout of clumsily plotted expedience, Mrs. Tingle finds the exam in Leigh Ann's bag. And so Luke, Leigh Ann, and her sidekick Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlin) head to Mrs. Tingle's home to prevent their expulsion. Again, the mechanics of plot stagger into coincidental overdrive, as the trio inadvertently kidnaps Tingle and then muddles through inept fits of blackmail, cajoling, and violence.

The ethical dilemma Williamson presents--Is it morally acceptable to skewer your super-mean teacher with a crossbow because she doesn't like your pretty-poo history project?--hardly carries the heft of high drama. Neither does the auteur plunge his characters into the depths of absurdity they deserve. Instead, he gets, you know, deep, allowing Mrs. Tingle to manipulate her captors one by one, stripping away their clichéd exteriors to reveal--gasp!--the clichéd souls they keep hidden from the world. Leigh Ann is driven by her fear of winding up as a waitress like her mom, Jo Lynn isn't really happy being consistently overshadowed by Leigh Ann, blah blah blah.

Williamson's direction traipses between genres and moods with grim determination and a scant sense of play, a lapse highlighted by Helen Mirren's joylessly wicked performance in the title role. Mrs. Tingle is an archetypal agent of pure evil from the get-go, and since the audience can share no delight in Tingle's cruelty, Williamson's belated attempts to flesh out her character are more irritating than illuminating. (We don't want the old bat explicated, we want her eliminated.) In fact, Williamson never seems to have the courage of his nihilistic convictions. He's almost apologetically wary of making the kids an actual threat, as if anything but the most tepid form of resistance would somehow justify Mrs. Tingle's cruelty toward them. They aren't rebels, you see--just social climbers with good intentions and dreams of overcoming adversity.

So much for the ambiguities seething beneath the surface of the script. Unlike most adults, Williamson (creator of Dawson's Creek and the Scream movies) retains a palpable empathy for the half-formed humans imprisoned in America's educational panopticons, for the quasi-murderous resentments they harbor against their adult keepers. He remembers the lack of control a child can feel in the classroom, what it feels like for one's destiny to be placed in the hands of a critical authority. But rather than romanticizing youth, Williamson envisions growing up as an escape from drudgery. He romanticizes adulthood.

Williamson insists that the titular villain is based on a real-life teacher who torpedoed his teen confidence and convinced him he couldn't write. Of course, she was wrong, as Williamson's bank account attests. Like most kids made good, Williamson mistakenly posits himself as the norm, insisting that you can escape the bounds of class by working hard and going to college. So it's easy for him to mistake an economic struggle for a battle between generations. In Teaching Mrs. Tingle, he has pinned his hopes on a naif who's convinced that a liberal-arts degree and a knack for writing is a sure ticket to the upper middle class. After all, English Lit majors never end up waiting tables, right?

 
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